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Stress, so misunderstood! How to use your stress messages to keep healthy and happy!

April is stress awareness month, so I wanted to share with you some tips for spotting signs of stress in yourself (or others) and ways to help yourself in this situation.

Signs you are stressed can include:

  • Raised heartbeat

  • Tightness of the chest or throat.

  • Trouble to breathe easily.

  • Lack of focus or concentration.

  • Headaches.

  • An unsettled stomach.

  • ·Stiffness or tenseness of muscles.

  • Disrupted sleep patterns

  • A feeling of fear, panic or overwhelm

  • Over-thinking.

  • Exhaustion or burnout.

“Stress” as a concept still holds a lot of stigma or negative connotations. You might be apprehensive to admit that you feel stressed. That in someway by being “stressed” you are admitting that you are not capable of handling a situation or see stress as a sign of weakness.

I invite you to see stress from a different angle. Our stress response is our body and mind’s way of giving us a clear signal that to take action, in relation to a perceived threat. It’s a warning sign from your brain to “do something” and do it differently. That, what ever strategy or behaviour you are currently doing, would benefit from a change of plan.

The stress response is saying “Hey, we need some extra resources for this” and will try to make us pay attention. It does this by stimulating the hypothalamus in our brain, the hypothalamus has a ‘little chat’ with the pituitary gland that secretes various hormones to trigger the stress response. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol physically alter our internal state and lead us to react.

In turn we have a few ways to handle a situation, fight, flight, freeze or faint. (In “real life” terms this could be something like getting angry, making an excuse to leave, withdrawing, or becoming exhausted/burnt out)

Our stress response can be triggered by all sorts of situations, from a significant life change such as relationship break up, money concerns or redundancy to more frequent stressors like a visit to the shops or feeling anxious about team dynamics.

The problem is you may often choose to disregard or suppress the message (and learning) from this response. Often the rational part of our brain will look at the scenario and logically talk your response down as being “silly” or “unwarranted”. Maybe you talk to someone about this stress and they say (from their logical and detached view point) “well there is no need to worry about that”. So you choose to ignore, understand and respond to your stressor in a way that will help reduce the stress, worry or anxiety caused.

When “logically” disregarding the stress message (without building in additional tools to manage the situation) you could find the message becomes “louder” and signs, symptoms are more frequent or intense.

That first trip to the shop where you felt a little “aware” of people, may escalate on repeat visits to a full-blown panic attack.

The “anticipation” you had about a colleague’s response to your team meeting contribution, warps into a paranoid sense that “no one likes me” so you call in sick from work.

Your attempt to work from home, while the washing machine whirls, the dog whines to go out, the kids have to be home schooled (and want to play with you) might have turned into a fear that your inadequate in your role and telling yourself you’re going to get fired at this rate!

Your brain has hit the “red button” and is doing everything it can, in escalating your thoughts and feelings, to try and get the message to you. Help!

If this, is you? Firstly, just press pause.

Take a few deep breaths, as this will help your mind to stimulate those parts of your brain that secrete calmer hormones that facilitate clarity too.

Next, and this might sound a little strange, thank your mind for giving you this sign and symptom of stress.

We can spend a lot of time getting angry or frustrated at these life-disrupting responses like stress, anxiety or despair. Forgetting that we are only taking this out on ourselves.

(You probably wouldn’t punch yourself in the face would you, so consider how your harsh and irritated words feel to yourself, on the receiving end of them).

The brain really thinks that the stress response is doing you a favour in some way. It’s not just giving you your stress dose for the fun of it. A part of you genuinely has read (or mis-read) your situation as something that needs an exit strategy or a battle plan.

So even if your rational mind knows the stress response is not needed. Thank your unconscious mind for believing it had to keep you safe. Really consider how amazing it is that a part of you will do anything it can to love and care for you, even if it’s attempts are a little OTT.

With a calmer mind, the next stage is to get curious.

Ask yourself curious questions like:

“What is the intention here?” another way of saying this would be “How is my stress response helping me” or “by having stress what am I doing instead?”

A natural (logical) thought might be “well it isn’t helping me”? That logic over-looks the true reason of the reaction. Find the perspective of a kind and curious place, that avoids logic and reasoning (just for now). Explore from a place of understanding and acceptance.

Consider that your mind genuinely believes that you need protecting from something, what could that be? Seeing this true message, helps to move the mind and body to “update” your thoughts, feelings and behaviours and manage stress differently.

Maybe it’s that the environment is too noisy for you to get your work done?

Perhaps you have been asked to do something, that really does not feel true to yourself?

Maybe you are trying to fit pieces of something together, without all the relevant information?

Are you fearing that you are going to “mess up” ?

Perhaps that team meeting felt like that time you were picked out last for a team sport at school and has triggered a total FOMO reaction, without consciously connecting the two?

If you have a clue from your “getting curious” moment, consider how clever your brain is to either 1) have mistaken the situation as being like something that needed safety or 2) given you a good old bellow to help you be aware of the danger signs.

From here you can begin to reframe the thoughts and feelings.

Ask yourself:

a) What resource (thought, feeling, action) would be a better fit for this situation?

b) What action can I take to create this change for myself? (and take it!)

That might be as simple as some kind self-talk about how clever your brain is to give you this very shouty signal. Or maybe it’s being courageous and speaking to someone about how you are feeling?

When I am under extreme stress my body gives me a fantastic signal by making my skin shout! I get outbreaks of eczema and the moment I see these I press pause and say to myself. OK! I am listening, I see you. What do I need to do? I take myself through the process and help aid my own response. I always thank my clever brain for giving me these signs, because it allows me to take stock and avoid burning myself out.

I make a conscious effort to learn from this. Acknowledge how valuable an alternative response or resource I use, benefits a future reduction in stress.

Stress and I have learned to be great friends. I know if I am not paying attention to my own well-being that Stress signals are going to show right up turn some serious sassy signs on, so I pay attention. How awesome is that!

This positive relationship with my stress response, means that mostly I can ensure it takes a nice break. Only showing up when I really need it.

Instead, I select ongoing beneficial strategies that enable me to go in prepared to new situations, challenges or unexpected circumstances. But I really do trust that Stress will be there to give me a helping hand, if I need to up my game and get back on the path of self-care and resilience.

So here is how I personally help reduce my own stress:

  • Regular well-being routines like baths, music, walking and nature.

  • Setting my “busy” limits. (This includes managing my over-excitement at opportunities and learning when to say no!).

  • Have brave and honest conversations, openly expressing my viewpoint and setting boundaries, when I need to.

  • Connecting with people who inspire me.

  • Know that other’s viewpoints will not always align to my own.

  • I don’t read the news!

  • Learning new things and gaining new perspectives to help me with my continuous personal development.

  • Making time to be creative.

  • Being thankful of all that I am and can achieve.

  • Seeking out nutritious food.

  • Getting a good nights sleep.

  • Forgiving myself for not being perfect.

  • Loving myself for being unique. (be yourself, everyone else is already taken!)

So just to recap, here is a process you can take yourself through to help with discovering your own stress management:

1) Manage the response – do something to actively acknowledge and reduce the stress, deeper breathing is a simple and effective way to do this.

2) Thank your mind for it’s best intention.

3) Get curious??

4) Be kind and consider your true message.

5) Reframe or change perspectives.

6) Identify other resources that help and take action.

7) Notice how the new thought, feeling or behaviour helps you to manage the situation differently.

If you find that you need a little more time and guidance to help with stress reduction strategies. Then your “number 6” could be to reach out to a coach or counsellor or a self-help course/book.

To learn more ways to reduce stress and increase your confidence to handle the lumps and bumps of life, book in a free discovery call with me. Find out how therapeutic coaching and change work can help you transform your life & discover ways to be happier, healthier and less stressed.

Picture Source #2 - Unsplash - Brett Johnson

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